9-30-05: Fairmount Indiana
Photo Credits: Jeffrey Round
Some people go to Graceland, others to the Dakota Apartments. I went to
Fairmount, Indiana. If you recognize the name, you’re probably a James Dean
Fairmount calls itself the “birthplace of cool” where “cool went to school.”
James Dean was actually born a few miles further up the I-69, in the town of
Marion. But he’s buried in Fairmount, and that makes all the difference.
Another signpost Dean fans know is 9-30-55, the date on which the
24-year-old actor died in a car crash. That was more than half a century
ago, but last week an estimated 30,000 fans visited Fairmount to mark the
I approached Fairmount with care. To me it’s a mythical place, like
Hollywood or Oz. I’d formed an idea of it long before I arrived and I didn’t
want it to change.
Many have made the Fairmount pilgrimage. In 1980 actor Martin Sheen helped
plan the first annual James Dean Memorial on the 25th anniversary of his
death. Singer Morrissey once dropped in for Dean’s birthday. Bob Dylan
showed up late one night wanting admittance to the Fairmount Museum where
two of Dean’s motorcycles are housed, the cemetery where he’s buried and the
Winslow family farm where he was raised. Dylan was granted access to all
Everyone wants to claim him: “Without Jimmy Dean, the Beatles never would
have existed,” John Lennon observed. Elvis, who memorized and recited
speeches from Rebel Without A Cause, wanted to be Dean.
The urge to connect with Dean, even after all this time, is hard to explain.
Teenagers see him as a youthful idealist confronting a world run badly by
adults. Others share his love of acting and his passion to be true to
But it’s more than that.
I was seventeen when I first saw East of Eden. I staggered out of the
cinema, conflicted and devastated both by what Dean had shown me about
myself and by his death. I could never know him, yet he seemed more alive
than most of the people I knew. He was weird, moody and passionate, and he
wasn’t afraid to parade his differences.
Today, Dean is an industry. His face adorns tourist brochures. Billboards
proclaim Grant County as “James Dean Country.” In the Fairmount Museum you
can buy James Dean watches, coffee mugs, belt buckles and even Christmas
ornaments. In 1996, he was issued as a stamp.
In downtown Fairmount, nearly every street and storefront displays him. In
and around Fairmount you’ll find Johnny Appleseed Park, the
Beatniks Café, a Legend Diner (whose washrooms are papered in
Dean stills), and a Jim Dandy Restaurant ‘featuring family dining.’
This is America’s secret ambition: to be a theme park of the safe, friendly
and familiar—all the things Dean was not.
Each year Fairmount’s Museum Days Festival features free screenings
of Dean’s films, a James Dean Run and the Little Jimmy Dean Look-Alike
contest. On the streets, more than one license plate bears the numbers
9-30-55 or the nickname ‘Little Bastard’, the name of the so-called cursed
Porsche Spyder in which Dean died.
And this year, as every year, crowds gathered on September 30th at Back
Creek Friends Church, which Dean attended as a boy just down the road from
the farm where he grew up. They come to hear Dean’s friends and relatives
remember him. After hours of reminiscence, the throng walks to the graveyard
a few minutes away.
Many are regulars. There’s Nicky Bazooka, a Dennis Hopper look-a-like, who
rides in each year on his chopper with a bouquet adorning his handlebars. He
rolls in, places the flowers on Dean’s grave and races off with a wave to
the crowd. Another fan arrives before everyone else and stands all day long
holding an American flag. He refuses to speak. As far as anyone knows, he’s
also the last to leave.
The gravesite is legendary. The headstone has been stolen twice. It’s now
reinforced with superglue and steel rods. Over the years Fairmount police
have removed a number of visitors found sleeping, reading and even having
sex on his grave. Once, seven university teachers were discovered conducting
Few actors alive today can hold the screen like Dean did. In his own time,
there was Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe and Montgomery Clift. All were
Method actors, but what they shared was more than talent. It was something
like charisma, the kind that pulls focus and draws you in. Dean might have
been narcissistic and self-absorbed, both onscreen and off, but he was also
luminous. It made him great.
Brando changed acting forever, but Dean changed the way we live. It wasn’t
Brando's birthplace I visited last week along with 30,000 others. Brando was
cool once, too, and still is onscreen, but he lived too long and changed too
much to be a legend.
Legends don’t age. And the younger they die the better, like Sylvia Plath,
Jim Morrison or Janis Joplin. At 40, John Lennon just squeaked into the
club. James Dean is its stellar member.